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Journal Article

Where Humans and the Planetary Conflate — An Introduction to Environing Media


Wickberg,  Adam
External, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Max Planck Society;

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Wickberg, A., & Gärdebo, J. (2020). Where Humans and the Planetary Conflate — An Introduction to Environing Media. Humanities, 9(3), 65. doi:10.3390/h9030065.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-000C-A1CA-A
In this essay, we provide an outline of historical and contemporary examples to illustrate
the theoretical concept of environing media. We first discuss how humans have environed their
surroundings long before the advent of scientific modernity and the rapid evolution of media
technologies that helped in making the planet governable. Against this background, we argue that a fundamental shift in the human–Earth relation happened after 1500 and that this shift is attributable to the development of environing media employed in the process of terrestrial globalisation. We see the present profound renegotiation of the human–Earth relation as a continuity, albeit with a different intensity as exemplified by the work in Earth system science. Finally, we invert Mike Hulme’s call for scientists to meet the humanities into an appeal to humanists to embrace the environmental sciences and pursue more integrative research. Recent developments in environmental history have seen an increased interest in the shaping of environments by means of technology. To this end, scholars have developed theoretical concepts like “environing technologies”, which are based on the premise that the environment is a historical formation by people and societies who form their surroundings as well as their sense of place. In the same vein, historical ecology has shown that premodern peoples also shaped the natural world to their purposes far more than what has generally been understood. The central premise is that what is understood as the environment is the result of human intervention and that environing technologies structure the way that it is used, perceived, and understood. These insights resonate with core notions in media theory, but they have never before been brought together. Given that all of our understanding of the environment today is the product of several processes of mediation, the theory of environing technology would benefit from stronger theorisation of the role of media. While the scale and intensity of information storage, processing, and transmission by media today are unprecedented, the logic of mediated data processing essentially remains the same as five centuries ago when agents of the Spanish Empire took part in shaping the understanding of the environment of the Americas and the globe. For these purposes, we propose the concept of environing media, as a means of both joining intellectual forces and pushing theoretical analysis of both branches further. The paper outlines the theory of environing media using examples from the Global South, in particular the shaping and sensing of landscapes in and around the Philippines. From early modern to late modern times, this region of the world has been influenced by environing media, most importantly circumnavigating ships and orbiting
sensing satellites. The result is landscapes made and remade according to colonial and later capitalist priorities operating on a global, and eventually a planetary, scale.